As US celebrates 50 years of Title IX, a new bill aims to improve gender equity in sports

As the country commemorates the 50th anniversary of Title IX, the landmark law banning sex discrimination in education, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, will introduce a bill in the coming weeks to improve gender equity in sports, his office told USA TODAY.

Murphy, who will cosponsor the Fair Play for Women Act of 2022 with Rep. Alma Adams, D-North Carolina, plans to tease the bill at a Title IX anniversary event his office is holding today with Voice in Sport, a New York-based advocacy start-up that connects young women athletes with mentors across professional sports.

USA TODAY investigates Title IX: Falling short at 50

Although text of the bill isn’t finalized, Murphy’s office told USA TODAYthat the legislation will consist of four main pillars:

  • The first clarifies that the NCAA should be held accountable to Title IX.
  • The second requires high schools to join colleges in reporting athletic participation numbers to the Department of Education and changes the way schools report those numbers.
  • The third demands more accountability for athletic departments that run afoul of Title IX.
  • The fourth requires a better understanding of Title IX for athletes and athletic department employees and makes it clear how to file a complaint.

In February, Nya Harrison, a soccer player at Stanford, presented on Capitol Hill with a group of Voice in Sport advocates, speaking candidly with lawmakers about the blatant inequities women athletes face throughout the sports world. Shortly after that presentation, Voice in Sports connected with Murphy’s office, and the genesis of the bill was born, she said.

“Most of the time, our voices as women athletes aren’t highlighted,” Harrison said. “In every single sport, women are mistreated in one way or another and no matter how much we try to share these experiences, they often get belittled.

“That’s why I thought it was important to go speak with officials at the federal level, so they can understand how important it is to make change. Title IX has helped, but there’s still a lot to be done, and a lot that should have been fixed by now.”

Of the four pillars, the first is potentially the most controversial. Currently, the NCAA, a private entity, is not beholden to Title IX. But given that the last few years have illustrated how women’s sports, especially in comparison to their male counterparts, are often under-resourced, there are questions about the NCAA’s role.

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) will introduce a bill in the coming weeks aimed at improving gender equity in sports.

Critics argue that the NCAA benefits from, and redistributes, revenues from Title IX-bound athletic programs and should therefore face similar accountability. 

In March 2021, when spending disparities at the men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournaments drew widespread outrage, experts said the only legal course of action female students could take would be to sue their individual schools. The Fair Play for Women Act would clarify the argument that the NCAA should be held accountable to Title IX.

The second pillar creates more transparency around public reporting of Title IX compliance. It would require both high schools and colleges to report participation numbers — currently only colleges are required to do so. Ideally, there would be a one-stop shop where anyone could find participation data on any high school or college in the country, and it would be easy to access and understand.

The bill would also update the language of the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act (EADA) and no longer allow schools to count the same athlete multiple times or count male practice players as female athletes in its reported data. Currently, those practices are both allowed and commonly used by collegiate athletic departments to artificially inflate their roster numbers and appear to give more opportunities to female athletes than they actually are.

A USA TODAY investigation published in May revealed that by using these roster manipulation tricks, schools added more than 3,600 additional participation “opportunities” for female athletes without adding a single new women’s team. 

Title IX was intended to close the gender gap in college athletics. But schools are rigging the numbers.

Third, the bill eyes more enforcement of non-compliant athletic departments. Enforcement of Title IX is the responsibility of the Office of Civil rights, but as many advocates and experts have argued, investigations are almost always reactionary, rarely preventative. And even if schools are found to be non-compliant, there are few meaningful consequences for rule-breakers: In 50 years of the law, no school has ever lost federal funds as a result of non-compliance.

Finally, the bill will lay out a plan for athletes and athletic department employees to better understand their rights under Title IX and make it clear how to file a complaint; many college athletes who met with lawmakers to discuss inequity throughout college sports admitted they don’t know the rules of Title IX or where to go to get clarity on the law, Murphy’s office said.

“The impact and progress in the last 50 years of Title IX is incredible, and we should celebrate it — but there’s so much more to advocate for in order to reach equality,” said Stef Strack, the founder of Voice In Sport and a former college soccer player at the University of Montana. “Title IX is 37 powerful words, but they’re only as powerful as the support around it. To see this bill come to life, it’s very rewarding.”

According to Murphy’s office, the bill is likely to be formally introduced after July 4, when the Senate reconvenes from its first summer recess.

Follow Lindsay Schnell on Twitter at @Lindsay_Schnell

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